I Am Grateful, So Grateful. Noting the Day Zen Master Koun Yamada Had His Great Awakening.

I Am Grateful, So Grateful. Noting the Day Zen Master Koun Yamada Had His Great Awakening. November 26, 2019



It was today, the 26th of November, 1953, that a Japanese business executive Koun Yamada had his great awakening experience.

This would be a critical event in the evolution of koan Zen in the West.

Koun Yamada was born in Nihonmatsu, Japan, in 1907. He attended school and later university with Soen Nakagawa, who would go on to become a renowned Rinzai monk and master. They would remain friends for the whole of their lives. They would also be partners in informal and sometimes formal ways all along the way.

However, while Soen took to the cloister, Yamada chose not to enter a monastery, instead going to work in the private sector. His initial work was in occupied Manchuria. Frankly, his position in a project that was sometimes simply slave labor is an issue for me, and I believe others.

He spent three years in Manchuria before returning to Japan settling in Kamakura. There, after several professional permutations he eventually took on administration of a large hospital, the Kembikyoin Medical Center. He would eventually serve them as their president.

In 1945 he began studying as a lay practitioner with the Rinzai master Asahina Sogen, who confirmed an early kensho, or insight. Wanting more he turned to Daiun Sogaku Harada, a Soto master who had trained with Rinzai teachers before establishing a reformed Soto koan curriculum. In 1950 he formally undertook the precepts with Harada Roshi. Yamada began to work principally with one of Harada Roshi’s senior dharma successors, Hakuun Yasutani.

Then, as Stephen Batchelor recounts in the Awakening of the West:

On 26 November 1953, Koun Yamada, a Japanese business executive in Kamakura, was returning home with his wife on a suburban train. He came across a passage in a Zen text in which the author declared: ‘I came to realise clearly that Mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.’ He broke into tears with the realization that after eight years of zazen he had finally grasped what this statement meant.

Batchelor was relying on Koun Yamada’s own account which is printed in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. Which I offer later with very slight edits.

Of course training continues. A lovely saying of the Zen community has it even the Buddha is still practicing. And Yamada continued his training with Hakuun Yasutani who confirmed him as a full successor in 1960.

Yasutani Roshi was interested in establishing a lay-oriented school separate from the Sotoshu. And, in 1953 he launched his project, which was first named the Kamakura Haku’un-kai, later the Sanbo Kyodan, and today it is called Sanbo Zen. Yamada Roshi succeeded Yasutani Roshi as head of what was at the time called the Sanbo Kyodan as its second president and senior teacher.

It is not possible to speak adequately of the importance of Koun Yamada for us in the West. While Harada Roshi has a direct lineage within the Soto School that derives from him, neither that line nor the Sanbo Zen lineage are particularly significant in Japan. However. For various reasons the Rinzai schools have not yet planted deep roots here. And so up until today for the most part if someone feels called into the koan way in North America or the West writ large, in all likelihood it will be with a teacher of Harada Roshi’s Soto reformed koan curriculum, either in a priestly line or with a lay teacher. The list of these teachers only starts with Philip Kapleau (with an asterisk), Robert Aitken, and Taizan Maezumi.

In addition to Buddhist teachers, Yamada Roshi took an interest in Christian practitioners, and should they complete his training program and then show capabilities as teacher, he also joined them into the lineage.

And, on a personal note. While I was ordained into the Soto way as a priest by Houn Jiyu Kennett, I was unwilling to take on a teacher’s mantle until I’d trained deeply into the koan way with John Tarrant, a teacher in this line and was authorized by him. So, Koun Yamada is a direct ancestor for me, as well. Like for many of us in the West…

Koun Yamada died in 1989. However in many ways he is still with us. The roshi’s lineage continues to enrich the Zen way in Japan and the West.

Endless bows…

Koun Yamada’s account of his great awakening as recorded in Three Pillars of Zen.


Dear Nakagawa-roshi:

Thank you for the happy day I spent at your monastery.
You remember the discussion which arose about Self-realization centering around that American. At that time I hardly imagined that in a few days I would be reporting to you my own experience.

The day after I called on you I was riding home on the train with my wife. I was reading a book on Zen by Son-o, who, you may recall, was a master of Soto Zen living in Sendai during the Genroku period [I688-I703]. As the train was nearing Ofuna station I ran across this line: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”

I had read this before, but this time it impressed itself upon me so vividly that I was starded. I said to myself: “After seven or eight years of zazen I have finally perceived the essence of this statement,” and couldn’t suppress the tears that began to well up. Somewhat ashamed to find myself crying among the crowd, I averted my face and dabbed at my eyes with my handkerchie£

Meanwhile the train had arrived at Kamakura station and my wife and I got off. On the way home I said to her: “In my present ex­hilarated frame of mind I could rise to the greatest heights.” Laugh­ingly she replied: “Then where would I be?” All the while I kept repeating that quotation to myself.

It so happened that that day my younger brother and his wife were staying at my home, and I told them about my visit to your monastery and about that American who had come to Japan again only to attain enlightenment. In short, I told them all the stories you had told me, and it was after eleven thirty before I went to bed.

At midnight I abruptly awakened. At first my mind was foggy, then suddenly that quotation flashed into my consciousness: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” And I repeated it. Then all at once I was struck as though by lightning, and the next instant heaven and earth crumbled and disappeared. In­stantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly:

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! There’s no reasoning here, no reasoning at all ! Ha, ha, ha ! ” The empty sky split in two, then opened its enor­mous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: “Ha, ha, haf” Later one of the members of my family told me that my laughter had sounded inhuman.

I was now lying on my back. Suddenly I sat up and struck the bed with all my might and beat the floor with my feet, as if trying to smash it, all the while laughing riotously. My wife and youngest son, sleeping near me, were now awake and frightened. Covering my mouth with her hand, my wife exclaimed: “What’s the matter with you? What’s the matter with you?” But I wasn’t aware of this until told about it afterwards. My son told me later he thought I had gone mad.

“I’ve come to enlightenment! Shakyamuni and the Patriarchs haven’t deceived me! They haven’t deceived me!” I remember cry­ing out. When I calmed down I apologized to the rest of the family, who had come downstairs frightened by the commotion.

Prostrating myself before the photograph of Kannon you had given me, the Diamond sutra, and my volume of the book written by Yasutani-roshi, I lit a stick of incense and did zazen until it was consumed half an hour later, though it seemed only two or three minutes had elapsed.

Even now my skin is quivering as I write.

That morning I went to see Yasutani-roshi and tried to describe to him my experience of the sudden disintegration of heaven and earth. “I am overjoyed, I am overjoyed!” I kept repeating, striking my thigh with vigor. Tears came which I couldn’t stop. I tried to relate to him the experience of that night, but my mouth trembled and words wouldn’t form themselves. In the end I just put my face in his lap. Patting me on the back he said: “Well, well, it is rare indeed to experience to such a wonderful degree. It is termed ‘Attainment of the emptiness of Mind.’ You are to be congratulated!”

“Thanks to you,” I murmured, and again wept for joy. Repeatedly I told him: “I must continue to apply myself energetically to zazen.” He was kind enough to give me detailed advice on how to pursue my practice in the future, after which he again whispered in my ear, “My congratulations!” and escorted me to the foot of the mountain by flashlight.

Although twenty-four hours have elapsed, I still feel the aftermath laughing and weeping by myself. I am writing to report my experience in the hope that it will be of value to your monks, and because Yasutani-roshi urged me to. Please remember me to that American. Tell him that even I, who am unworthy and lacking in spirit, can grasp such a wonderful ex­ perience when time matures. I would like to talk with you at length about many things, but will have to wait for another time.

P. S. That American was asking us whether it is possible for him to attain enlightenment in one week of sesshin. Tell him this for me: don’t say days, weeks, years, or even lifetimes. Don’t say millions or billions of kalpa. Tell him to vow to attain enlightenment though it take the infinite, the boundless, the incalculable future.

MIDNIGHT OF THE 28TH (These diary entries were made during the next two days.) l Awoke thinking it 3 or 4 a.m., but the clock said it was only 12:30.

Am totally at peace at peace at peace.

Feel numb throughout body, yet hands and feet jumped for joy for almost half an hour.

Am supremely free free free free free.

Should I be so happy?

There is no common man.

The big clock chimes-not the clock but Mind chimes. The uni­verse itself chimes. There is neither Mind nor universe. Dong, dong, dong!

I’ve totally disappeared. Buddha is!

“Transcending the law of cause and effect, controlled by the law of cause and effect”-such thoughts have gone from my mind.

Oh, you are! You laughed, didn’t you? This laughter is the sound of your plunging into the world.

The substance of Mind-this is now luminously clear to me. My concentration in zazen has sharpened and deepened.

This is a reference to the second case of (Mumonkan, the koan commonly known as Hyakujo’s Fox.)

MIDNIGHT OF THE 29TH I am at peace at peace at peace. Is this tremendous freedom of mine the Great Cessation described by the ancients? Whoever might question it would surely have to admit that this freedom is extraordinary. If it isn’t absolute freedom or the Great Cessation, what is it?

4 A.M. OF THE 29TH I Ding, dong ! The clock chimed. This alone is! This alone is! There’s no reasoning here.

Surely the world has changed [with enlightenment]. But in what way?

The ancients said the enlightened mind is comparable to a fish swimming. That’s exactly how it is-there’s no stagnation. I feel no hindrance. Everything flows smoothly, freely. Everything goes nat­urally. This limitless freedom is beyond all expression. What a won­derful world!

Dagen, the great teacher of Buddhism, said: “Zen is the wide, all­ encompassing gate of compassion.”

I am grateful, so grateful.


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